We often highlight how social media platforms are overly protective of those using their platform for abuse and don’t give enough protection to the people that abuse impacts. US history, culture and legal norms play a large role in the corporate culture of social media companies which leads them to these positions that are often strange when viewed from outside the Unites States.
A core part of the culture is the desire to resist the power of government. This comes from a very different relationship between the people and the government. It is a result of the foundation of the US out of the War of Independence in which the Government (the British) were seen to be abusing the trust of the people (taxation without representation). The First Amendment to protect speech and the press, means for holding the Government accountable, and the Second Amendment the protections of the militias and the right of the people to keep and bear Arms (which enables an unjust government to be overthrown by force) are examples of this.
A side effect of these protections is that the government doesn’t seem to feel a need to regulate itself. It relies on trying to push the envelope and leaving the courts to decide if the executive went too far. It is in this environment where the companies seek to find ways around government regulation in a manner we find worrying when the regulations have been passed by elected representatives and actually have huge public support in a given democratic country. It’s the effort to resist the rule of law and the social and cultural norms of the society the company it seeking to operate in which cause us so much concern.
All this said, sometimes, particularly in the US, the push back of the companies against governmental abuses of power is entirely appropriate. In an unfolding matter Twitter is resisting efforts to reveal the identity of a user behind an account, @ALT_uscis, which is critical of US immigration policies. The account is part of a series of “alt” accounts with the names of US government agencies which are posting content opposing the current policies of the US Government in those areas. The account in this case is thought to be run by a federal employee, which would mean the employee may be in breach of their employment contract. While the First Amendment prevent the US Government limiting the speech of citizens, it doesn’t stop an employer (including the US Government) imposing limitations on speech in the terms of the employment contract. The US Government, however, has not sought the information on this basis but rather by making spurious claims that it needs the user’s details for an investigation into customs and immigration matters such as duties, taxes and fines. There is no connection at all between the power they are seeking to use and the data they are trying to get.
Twitter is using the courts to resist the governments order to release the information, rightly pointing out the order it received is invalid. The government, as an employer, could take action in court to seek the details from Twitter to support its case for a breach of contract… but doing so would see the government in the same position as any other employer. Given it is the government, Twitter would likely still resist such a civil law request. The government if they know who the person is can take disciplinary action against them (if they are in fact a current employee of the US Government) but to demand Twitter give up information when this isn’t clearly known would be a fishing expedition. The problem the US Government faces is that there is no clear breach of law and the idea there may be a contractual breach, if the person is an employee, is just conjecture at this stage. This makes the case very different from cases where defamatory content, unlawful hate speech or content promoting violent extremism is posted as the content there can on the face of it be used to determine if the law has been breached prior to seeking information on the person who tweeted it.
While we support Twitter’s resistance to this unlawful order, we believe the basis for rejecting it is that there is no evidence that any law has been broken or that any private legal rights have been infringed. This is a much more straight forward argument than suggesting their is a right to anonymous criticism of the government and that Twitter should be legally protected from revealing users information to protect such a right.
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